Introduction to The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of predominantly verse stories by Geoffrey Chaucer. Written between 1387 and 1400, the Tales includes twenty-four interlocking stories from the perspectives of a group of thirty religious pilgrims, who are competing in a storytelling competition as they travel. It is believed, based on the General Prologue, that Chaucer originally intended to have each pilgrim narrate four stories, with the entire collection numbering around 120 tales. However, Chaucer died prior to the work’s completion. Despite being unfinished, The Canterbury Tales is widely regarded as Chaucer’s best work, and both the collection as a whole and the individual tales are frequently adapated and commonly included in both literary and philological courses of study.

Chaucer held a number of court positions during his lifetime, and his poetry was often dedicated to members of the nobility. The Canterbury Tales, however, has no specific dedication. Furthermore, the pilgrims encompass a large range of vocations, social statuses, and points of view. As a result, the work is often read as a work of social commentary and religious satire, highlighting the varied experiences and values of the different classes. In particular, the "Wife of Bath’s Tale" has received attention from feminist critics for its discussions of gender and power within marriage.

One of the most notable aspects of The Canterbury Tales is that it is written in Middle English, and it was penned prior to the Great Vowel Shift that led to the development of Early Modern English. Since the Tales are written in verse and contain intentional rhymes, they have offered numerous insights into the pronunciations of Middle English words. The text is also credited with developing a unique version of an already popular literary device, the frame story. The poem stands as a rich tapenstry of the human experience. Indeed, rather than centering the Tales around a central idea or moral, Chaucer instead develops the individuals pilgrims using the stories they tell, offering greater insight into the social differences among the various characters.

A Brief Biography of Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340s–1400), now considered English literary royalty, did not have such lofty beginnings. He was born into a family of winemakers and merchants sometime in the 1340s. Although he spent most of his life in and around the court, he had to work a succession of jobs—as a page, a soldier, a diplomat, and a justice of the peace—to support himself. Prior to Chaucer’s writings, however, most texts in England were composed in Latin (the language of the church) or French (the language of the nobility). Chaucer decided to write in the language of the people—medieval English—and thus changed the history of literature. He was a prolific author, penning many stories and poems over the course of his lifetime, but he is best known for The Canterbury Tales, a collection of wise, ironic, funny, and bawdy stories that still connect with readers today.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales

In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer—as the narrator—joins twenty-nine pilgrims, including the Plowman, at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London. The pilgrims are on their...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 12:47 pm (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

When the Host proposes the pilgrims have a storytelling contest with a free meal as the prize, it goes without saying that someone has to go first. They decide to pull straws, and the pilgrim with...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 11:52 am (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of twenty-four stories written by famed English poet and philosopher Geoffrey Chaucer. It was published posthumously in 1400. The plot follows the narrator, who...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 11:55 am (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

One reoccurring visual you can examine as a central symbol in The Canterbury Tales is vegetation. Note that Chaucer uses plant imagery, like seeds, flowers, blossoms, and leaves. Think about why...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 1:18 pm (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer's use of irony has led to some of his vignettes in the General Prologue becoming victims of his own subtlety, with readers no longer certain which characters are being praised sincerely....

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 12:20 pm (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer contains several moral lessons. In Chaucer’s time, it was common for people to go on pilgrimages to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 12:56 pm (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

It appears that The Canterbury Tales remained unfinished at the time of Chaucer's death. The General Prologue announces his intention to write 120 stories—four for each pilgrim. Even if he later...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 1:02 pm (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

The prize for the best tale is supper at the Tabard Inn on the return trip for the person who tells the best tale: Tales of best sentence and most solas, Shal have a soper at our aller cost....

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 11:56 am (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

This, of course, subjective, but the one character that stands out in many readers' and critics' mind as the best and most vividly drawn is the Wife of Bath. She is a memorable character, and her...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 11:35 am (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 fictional and satirical stories written by English author, poet, philosopher, and diplomat Geoffrey Chaucer, who is commonly regarded as the "father of...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 11:26 am (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is one of the great unfinished works of world literature. Chaucer died before his proposed 120 tales could be written, leaving behind only twenty-four tales in all. The work...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 12:06 pm (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales begins with the General Prologue, in which all the pilgrims who are to tell the tales are briefly introduced to the reader. Chaucer outlines the occupation, social class, and...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 11:11 am (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

The main frame story of The Canterbury Tales is one of a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, in which a diverse group of pilgrims tell stories as they make their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 11:52 am (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

There are 24 tales in total in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which cover a wide variety of themes and styles. All of the tales offer fascinating insight into life in medieval England....

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 4:01 pm (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer critiques the hypocrisy, dishonesty, and materialism of the church in his day. As makes sense for a religious pilgrimage, many of the travelers to Canterbury have positions of authority...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 12:48 pm (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is an anthology of satirical stories written in Middle English by British poet, philosopher, and diplomat Geoffrey Chaucer, who is commonly regarded as the "father of modern...

Latest answer posted September 24, 2020, 12:16 pm (UTC)

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The Canterbury Tales

While Chaucer's exact purpose for writing The Canterbury Tales is unknown, the content speaks for itself. The Canterbury Tales are packed with social criticism of Chaucer's medieval world, from the...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:48 am (UTC)

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Summary